An Irish literary summer school ... in Singapore

IASIL2017: When Singapore turned a bit Irish (and vice-versa). A behind-the-scenes look at what Irish academics and writers are talking about

For a week at the end of July, the vibrant, multicultural Southeast Asian country of Singapore played host to 150 writers, academics and postgraduate students of Irish writing and culture as part of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (IASIL) annual conference. The event was co-funded by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and The Ireland Funds Singapore, a chapter of the Ireland Funds, the global philanthropic network.

This was the first time that the IASIL conference was held in Southeast Asia, having previously been held in more than a dozen countries since 1970. The cultural, social and historical echoes between two the countries (Irish place-names mark many major streets, buildings and bridges in Singapore), the similar-sized populations and, their disproportionately high impact on the global stage somehow made this the perfect combination.

Hosted by the NTU English department, the IASIL conference initially had the usual aspiration of most literature conferences: to engage with a range of literary, cultural and historical matters that are of particular contemporary relevance to the participants. Successful academic conferences usually generate sophisticated discourse and enhance the participants’ networks and research. All of this happened at IASIL2017 in Singapore – but the week-long event also seemed to transcend the limits of its own ethos and somehow managed to become an electrifying hub of conversation, cultural engagement and exchange of ideas, spilling from the seminar rooms into many major cultural centres and backdrops within the dizzying Singapore landscape.

The highlights were the sessions involving the writers, both Irish and Singaporean. These were a delight and they provided a real-world context for the academic discussion

Nestled in what was once a dense rainforest, the lush NTU campus formed the initial backdrop for lectures and readings. An early signal of the freeing up of the usual fare was clear at the opening evening’s energised sequence of readings where Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill read with three of Singapore’s most inventive poets, Grace Chia, Desmond Kon, and Ng Yi-Sheng. An evening hosted by the Irish Ambassador Geoffrey Keating followed on July 25th and saw the literary events played out in convivial surroundings among guests from the conference, the Irish community in Singapore and from more than a dozen Asian countries and beyond.


Conference attendees also participated in a joint Ireland-Singapore cultural evening co-hosted by the Singapore Writers Festival on July 27th, at which Irish writers Marina Carr and Julian Gough were joined on stage by three important Singapore writers – Pooja Nansi, Cheryl Julia Lee, and Samuel Lee – before a rousing performance of selections from Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, directed by the Dublin theatre director, SarahJane Scaife, brought the evening to a reluctant close.

Throughout the week, academic speakers found themselves mingling with writers and with the imaginative energy that produced the work that they teach and write about – at times it felt like a blend of literary festival and academic conference. In fact, at some point during the week the conference seemed to forget that it was an academic conference and had turned instead into an extended journey of cultural immersion and cross-the-barriers engagement.

The issue of Irish canon-formation was continually raised by speakers from all over the world, with issues of gender and aesthetic complexity to the fore

The Irish delegates, as well as those from more than 20 other countries, found themselves in a full-on Irish cultural event filtered through a very special Singapore lens. Or, as Ambassador Keating described it: “For me personally the highlight were the sessions involving the writers, both Irish and Singaporean, whether they were reading from their work or discussing their craft. These were a delight and they provided a real-world context for the academic discussion. The funny thing was that this was a really serious, substantive academic conference that managed to feel relaxed and light-hearted.”

As one would expect, IASIL lectures and panels offered up important new observations on Joyce, Beckett, the demise of the Celtic Tiger, institutional child abuse, and a host of other important topics. Writers like Flann O’Brien, Anne Enright, John Banville and Emma Donoghue were repeatedly mentioned, as were Mike McCormack (before the Booker nomination), Eimear McBride and Kevin Barry.

In addition, however, some new insistent patterns emerged during the week that may give Irish studies a specific focus in the coming years. The issue of Irish canon-formation was continually raised by speakers from all over the world, with many speakers wondering why major writers like Aidan Higgins, Dermot Healy, Dorothy Nelson, Freda Laughton and Maeve Brennan have received such scant attention – with issues of gender and aesthetic complexity to the fore.

Do we Irish only read recognisable forms? Why are we so averse to innovative writing? And why have so many female authors been abandoned after often-condescending book reviews? Many writers from the 1970s and 1980s, in particular, have apparently fallen off the grid, are out-of-print, remaindered. These discussions were greatly enriched and given sharp focus by the presence of so many writers. Joining Carr and Gough were Eoin McNamee, Deirdre Madden, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Several of them wondered aloud why Irish novelists like Sean O’Reilly, Dermot Healy and Barry McKinley receive such scant attention, while Ní Dhomhnaill noted the importance of Irish-language writer Biddy Jenkinson, including her detective novels, and Carr urged greater attention be paid to some young playwrights like Nancy Harris. Some really positive and open discussions about the oft-fraught relationship between academia (and/or reviewers) and writers also emerged. Allowing writers to roam loose among the academics clearly energised both groups.

It was fitting that in a technological hub like Singapore (and NTU) the question of the relationship between the digital and literature also emerged as a major tread of significance during the week. The conference was opened on July 24th by UCD Chair of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama, Prof Margaret Kelleher, whose keynote address demonstrated the increasing relevance of digital humanities for literary studies. To further illustrate Prof Kelleher’s argument, the conference also launched and offered access to “Joycestick,” which was created by a team of Boston College’s faculty and students, and led by Prof Joe Nugent. It brings Joyce’s Ulysses to virtual life in an immersive 3D game, allowing readers to experience the novel in virtual reality. The game launch at NTU-Singapore followed launches in Rome, Dublin, and Toronto earlier this year.

Julian Gough, who wrote the end narrative to the popular video game Minecraft, was also a guest writer for the conference and responded enthusiastically: “All technologies call into being new art forms, and change old art forms. It is dangerous if the only people working on computer games are programmers funded by profit-driven corporations. And so it’s wonderful to see lovers of art, literature and tech, at Boston College, crashing Joyce and VR together to see what happens… Ulysses in VR still has meaning. We’re on the right track.”

In keeping with the digital buzz, IASIL2017 made waves of its own all week on Twitter and Facebook, with hundreds of posts, live commentaries, circulation of images, and interaction much in the spirit of the event itself – even by those who weren’t there!

Neil Murphy is a Professor of English at NTU~Singapore and was the Director of IASIL2017